Why the Cleveland Browns are legitimate Super Bowl threats in 2021: Seven reasons they could emerge in the AFC

Should the Browns replace Mayfield with Rodgers? Orlovsky isn't so sure (1:47)

Dan Orlovsky isn't sold on the Browns trading for Aaron Rodgers to replace Baker Mayfield. (1:47)

The Cleveland Browns are one of the best teams in the NFL and a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

When was the last time you heard someone make that statement with a straight face? It has certainly been a long time for the Browns, but their emergence is hardly a surprise if you've been paying attention.

The Browns reached a franchise low point when they finished with the dreaded 0-16 record in 2017, but their Sashi Brown-induced rebuild was already underway, and a strong 2018 offseason set the foundation for their inevitable ascension to contender status in the AFC. The Browns jumped to 7-8-1 in 2018 before stumbling to 6-10 in 2019 and then making a big leap in 2020 with an 11-5 regular season -- followed by a playoff win over the division-rival Steelers. It was their most wins and first playoff victory since 1994.

Of course, naysayers will point out Cleveland's strong 2020 campaign was fluky. The Browns were the only one of 14 playoff teams with a negative regular-season scoring differential (minus-11). Of their 11 regular-season wins, eight were against teams with losing records, and another was a Week 17 game against Pittsburgh's backups. Cleveland went 0-2 and was outscored 85-48 in two games against the division-rival Ravens, and despite beating Pittsburgh in the playoffs, it was also crushed by the eventual division champs 38-7 in Week 3. Cleveland also lost in the playoffs to a Chiefs team that was without Patrick Mahomes in the fourth quarter. And, worst of all, they lost a regular-season game to the Jets.

There are some legitimate points in there, and Cleveland will need to overcome Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Kansas City in order to punch its ticket to Super Bowl LVI. So, the question is why now? Why will the Browns finally be able to get it done this time around? Here's the reasoning behind Cleveland's case as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2021.